17May Catholic liturgies should be reverent — and better understood

Dec. 3, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”). Arguably the most practical outcome of that extraordinary event in the life of the church, the reform and renewal of Catholic liturgy is something whose meaning is still debated, as a number of recent studies have shown. How has the church’s worship fared in these past 50 years? The results since the council have been fairly mixed.

The many provisions of the constitution on the liturgy are directed toward three major goals: 1) full, conscious and active participation by all involved in the celebration of the liturgy (No. 14); 2) structural revision of liturgical rites (Nos. 21 and 23); 3) most important, recognition that the liturgy is the work of Christ himself and that the church itself is most fully realized when the Eucharist is celebrated (Nos. 5 to 10).

The first and third goals belong together, since the document affirms that full participation is integral to the liturgy because all the faithful participate by virtue of their baptism. A profound theology of the church based on baptism and the common priesthood of the faithful undergirds the whole document, one that the historian Massimo Faggioli has argued was not adequately embodied in the other constitutions and decrees of the council. The theological vision of Vatican II, which itself was the fruit of over a century of historical retrieval (ressourcement) and critical study of the liturgies of the past, is very much at the center of the debates about the liturgy today. One of the urgent issues that this theology raises is a better understanding of the relationship between the baptismal priesthood and the priesthood of the ordained.

The second goal, the structural revision of liturgical rites, is related to the other two. The framers of the constitution realized that the rites themselves needed revision so that their theological meaning could be appreciated anew. That process had been inspired by the first liturgical encyclical of the modern era, Pope Pius XII’s “Mediator Dei” (1947), and by the establishment of a commission for liturgical reform the following year. Some results had already been realized by the time of the council: the revision of the Holy Week ceremonies, the relaxation of fasting regultions, permission for evening Mass and the increase in so-called dialogue Masses, in which the people responded to the priest (in Latin) and sang parts of the Mass. But the council had in mind an even more radical reform that would clear away much of the debris that had (inevitably) accumulated over the centuries and would look to adapt the liturgy to contemporary culture—as long as organic continuity with the past was respected (No. 23). The actual shape of the subsequent reform and liturgical reformers’ understanding of modernity were to become controversial.

The Reforms: A Scorecard

Some council documents, like “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” needed to be complemented by further legislation and pastoral implementation. The task of putting flesh on the structure provided by the constitution was given to the Consilium, a group of bishops and expert advisors who began work immediately. The sheer scope of their work, completed within only 10 years, is awesome. Here we can highlight four significant areas of change: the use of the vernacular, the reorientation of the church building, the expansion of ministerial participation and the restructuring of the liturgical year.

The most obvious consequence of the constitution was the permission to use the vernacular for certain parts of the eucharistic liturgy. The Consilium and Pope Paul VI himself quickly found that translating the entirety of the liturgy into the vernacular was desirable. If conscious participation was ever to come about, this move was inevitable. Part and parcel of translating the liturgy was the desire to open up the treasury of the Scriptures. The liturgical movement and the new Catholic appreciation of the Bible went hand in hand.

Recent years have seen a struggle to find appropriate language for liturgical celebration. In English we seem to have moved from a rather loose and somewhat uninspiring translation to a text that is stilted and filled with awkward archaisms (consubstantial, chalice). One can hope that a future translation will find a happy medium and expand the body of prayers with original compositions, as the U.S. bishops and other episcopal conferences had proposed with the 1997 translation by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

If the use of the people’s language was the most significant reform inspired by the council, the rearrangement of church space was a close second. Even before the council had ended, a first instruction implementing the reform mandated that the main altar of any church at which the Eucharist was celebrated needed to be free-standing so that the presiding priest could stand on the side facing the people. What resulted was a remarkable shift in the popular understanding of the liturgy. Now it became clear that the celebration was communal and called for active participation. The change did, however, bring with it a peril because of the possible focus on the personality of the priest instead of on the liturgy itself.

A vigorous debate, spurred on by a movement often referred to as the “reform of the reform,” continues. As is the case with language, balance needs to be sought in church architecture and arrangement. Some of the newer church constructions clearly lack the beauty and elegance required for worship of a God who transcends our world while at the same time dwelling among us. Other church buildings that were designed with a very different liturgy in mind have suffered from weak and sometimes misguided renovations. Catholic communities deserve spaces that both inspire full, conscious and active participation and invite us to a deeper relationship with the God who is always beyond our grasp.

A third area of reform is the noteworthy expansion of liturgical ministries. Properly celebrated, the post-Vatican liturgy requires a number of ministers: deacons, readers, acolytes, musicians, servers and extraordinary ministers of Communion. There were deacons at the old solemn high Masses before the council, but they were usually priests who simply dressed the part. The council reinstituted the permanent diaconate, which made it possible for married men to be ordained in the Latin rite and, even if unintentionally, opened the door for what are now called lay ecclesial ministers, who may not minister at the altar but have become a significant part of the church landscape. The priest shortage as well as regularly offering Communion from the cup led to the need for more ministers and the institution of lay ministers of Communion. What official legislation still deems extraordinary—lay ministers are only called for when there are not enough priests available to distribute Communion—now seems normal in most parish celebrations. Lay ministers of Communion are an important symbolic element in the coordinated array of ministers that the liturgy requires.

Another aspect of the liturgy that was changed significantly after the Second Vatican Council is the rearrangement of the liturgical year. Sunday was restored to its pride of place in Christian celebration since it is our primary celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord (the paschal mystery). The integrity of the 50 days of Easter has been emphasized. The number and ranking of saints’ days has been dramatically reduced. Lent now has a twofold focus: Christian initiation and the renewal of that initiation through penance. Along with the reform of the liturgical calendar came a much richer approach to the Lectionary, with a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays and major feasts (including much more of the Old Testament than had ever before been read in the Roman Rite) and proper readings for weekdays. Previously only Lent had a series of weekday readings. Of course, in contemporary society the liturgical calendar competes with all sorts of other calendars (educational, civic, seasonal), but it seems to be working, even if subtly, to form a generation of Catholics. Only time will tell.

Critics and Challenges

The post-Vatican II liturgical reform has not been without its critics and its challenges. The “reform of the reform” movement had Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as one of its champions. Pope Benedict encouraged both a rethinking of the disposition of church spaces (turning the priest’s position once again to the “east”—that is, facing away from the people) and a revival of the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy, which he named the “extraordinary form.” What at first seemed to be an accommodation for a minority who wished to celebrate the old form now seems to have become a growing trend, with some seminaries actively training future priests to celebrate the older rite and some groups actively encouraging its spread. It is very difficult not to regard this development as somewhat divisive. No doubt some of the roots of the movement lie in a shoddy and devil-may-care implementation of the liturgical reform, an external reform that was not accompanied by an interior renewal.

On the other hand, the older liturgy is clearly symbolic of a vision of church, theology and the world that the Second Vatican Council consciously moved away from in some very important ways. It is not for nothing that the most recalcitrant followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the St. Pius X Society, join their love of the Latin liturgy to a profound suspicion, if not denial, of the council’s declaration on religious freedom and its general mood of welcoming conversation with the modern world. In other words, opting for the older liturgy often bespeaks a rejection of Vatican II and all that the council brought with it. As Massimo Faggioli has convincingly pointed out, to reject the liturgy that resulted from the Vatican II constitution is to reject the Council itself.

The election of Pope Francis may well open a new chapter in the postconciliar debates on the liturgy. If the first liturgical celebrations of his pontificate are any indication, he may at least temper the fervor of those who have been most critical of the reforms. His actions seem to show him in favor of the newer liturgy and its greater simplicity.

So the post-Vatican II reform will probably proceed apace. But with regard to the major goals of “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the reform is far from over. Surely there are a good number of Catholic communities where the council’s renewed vision of the liturgy has been assimilated and celebrated, but there are far too many in which the message has been digested only halfheartedly or without a profoundly interiorized appreciation of that vision’s implications.

The task going forward is twofold. First, every effort should be made to ensure that our liturgical celebrations are truly reverent. This does not require that liturgies be celebrated with medieval choreography and lots of lace; it does mean that they must be carefully prepared and prayerfully celebrated. The style of the liturgy is not of primary importance. The post-Vatican II liturgy can be celebrated in any number of cultural contexts, but their common denominator needs to be reverence.

The second task is considerably more challenging. Catholics need to be helped to understand more deeply and more explicitly the connections between their lives and what they celebrate in church. As the great contemporary liturgical historian, Robert Taft, S.J., has said: “The liturgy is the Christian life in a nutshell.” Nothing more—but nothing less. Our liturgies themselves, albeit in a ritualized fashion, play out the way we are called to live. They are the summit of Christian living as well as its source. As that reality enters more deeply into the Catholic consciousness, we will achieve by God’s grace the full, conscious and active participation the council called for, and we will be on our way to celebrating more fully the baptismal priesthood we are called to live.

John F. Baldovin, S.J., is professor of liturgical and historical theology at Boston College. His most recent book is Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics (Liturgical Press, 2008).


15 Responses

  1. mjt

    That`s what I`ve been telling ye all along but ye wouldn`t listen to me!
    It`s about The Priesthood of the Baptised (“A profound theology of the church based on baptism and the common priesthood of the faithful”), the necessity of the laity to be actively involved in the Eucharist and in the life of and decision-making in the church more generally.

    That`s where it`s at, as we hippies used say. And the Church will eventually catch on, leading, as always, from behind.

  2. Philomena B.

    “Our liturgies themselves, albeit in a ritualized fashion, play out the way we are called to live.” And the fashion seems to be that most people attend a ritual believing it to be the living of the call to follow Christ. Makes you wonder what the point of any of it really is.

    Attending a ‘fashion’ parade, I mean ‘First Holy Communion,’ this morning. Those poor children have as much of a clue as to what it’s supposed to be about as we do it seems. Oh we of little faith.

  3. John Quinn

    What is not addressed in this essay or unfortunately in few essays whether on liturgy, christology, sacramental theology whatever is how the new cosmology impacts on such reflections. Despite the reforms of Vatican II the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy is still based on Fall/Redemption from the Scriptures and Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Redemption.

    Over thirty years ago while studying Sacramental Theology with Jake Empereur SJ he said that there was little or no experimentation with liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church because when you experimented you did not know what the result might be. The same goes with theology of any kind that seeks to be approved and not have its authors hounded by the CDF or individual bishops, bishops conferences or what-have-you.

    The scientific findings that support the new cosmology – Big Bang, 13-14 billion years; Supernova Explosion 6 billion years; evolution; – invite us to examine our Scriptures – 4 to 4.5 thousand years old, written with a belief in a flat earth and a God who lived in heaven – and the theology that has developed from that source. But unless we are prepared to start with creation, and what we now know about it from our current scientific investigations, and not JUST with the faith-filled writings of a group of Semites s few thousand years ago then we are condemned to do nothing more than language clarification.

    Do we not have the faith that the scripture writers had? Are we afraid to look at our world as we know it to be today and try to understand God’s presence in it? We say we believe in God but are we prepared to do theology, to seek to understand our faith based on our world in the 21st century? Or is our faith still the child’s faith in what our parents, grandparents, Church believes and has believed for but a few millenia? Do we have faith enough to experiment and see where we end up?

  4. Chris (England)

    I fully support what John Quinn(3) has written. His final paragraph is particularly relevant to evangelisation and the very credibility of the Church today He asks:
    “Do we not have the faith that the scripture writers had? Are we afraid to look at our world as we know it to be today and try to understand God’s presence in it? We say we believe in God but are we prepared to do theology, to seek to understand our faith based on our world in the 21st century? Or is our faith still the child’s faith in what our parents, grandparents, Church believes and has believed for but a few millenia? Do we have faith enough to experiment and see where we end up?”
    I think the Church as a whole has to have the courage to address these very real questions, entering into genuine dialogue with people who have questions, those are no longer able or willing to be passively spoon fed chunks of doctrine and rituals that make little sense to them. Many of our Church leaders are afraid to launch out into the deep, preferring instead to cling to the security of the institution for their own protection and security. Vatican ll began this process of launching out – until so many of our leaders got cold (or wet) feet and retreated to the shallow waters of seeming certainties. In the meantime, the rest of the world moved on and with questions unanswered, so many people have voted with their feet. Pope Francis has made a fresh start in the area of morality, choosing to lay stress on reaching out to the poor and dispossessed: however I believe he has to do more by taking the lead in reopening frank and honest discussion of many doctrinal issues so that underlying truths and values may be recovered from the numerous, historally conditioned layers with which they have been covered.

  5. Paddy Ferry

    Every so often something appears on our ACP site that really stops me in my tracks and John Quinn has just done that @ 3 above. Of course,it is blindingly obvious what John has to say about how the new cosmology, and the scientific findings that support our new understanding of the universe, impacts on our understanding of scripture but it never dawned on me until I read John’s post. Wonder how the likes of Bob Hayes and Sean(Derry) will cope with John’s insights.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    John (@3), I believe we do have the faith that the scripture writers had especially since we are at a period of time when a clear direction in society has never been needed more (on our supposed path to self-destruction). More importantly than seeing God’s presence in the world is the necessity to see where he is clearly absent and this, in my opinion, although the most important work of the Roman Catholic Church, doesn’t get done (Are priests afraid to rock the boat?). The last Pope cried for us to “swim against the tide” which I’m sure is code talk for something much more eloquent and if we look at writings such as Caritas in Veritate and the New Seven Social Sins, we get a glimpse of what he was trying to whisper. Ask a priest what are the Seven New Social Sins and he’s bound to tilt his head sideways (Bishops too). I think what we are lacking today is courage, lay and clergy alike (sheep under the leadership of wolves). This is understandable because if we apply the word of God to our modern day way of life, we’d be more than simply swimming against the tide (up a creek without a paddle with a raging tsunami bearing down on us comes to mind). Our God gives us the ability to choose right or wrong freely and our spirit is what directs us on the right path, but only if we believe that there will be ultimate consequences based on our decisions. Jesus by ushering in his ministry and also paying the ultimate ransom for his goodwill, made sure his legacy would continue to be remembered – a legacy we often forget when we fill our lives with kings and act like we are bound to a certain way of life, like slaves. The reality is his Church tells us to worry about our worldly decisions because in heaven we’ll still be looking down on creation and what we decided to do or not do. Forgiveness or no forgiveness, we leave our legacy to our children’s children and our place in heaven makes sure we know the effect our lives had on the future. Catholic liturgies must be reverent but first they must be relevant to modern day life; representing a connection to how Catholics should live today and if truly reverent, how we should live tomorrow so that we may cast our smiles on future generations from heaven.

  7. John

    I have just come back from a holiday in Italy – Verona. I stepped into the Church of St Lucy on the Corso Porta Nuova on Tuesday evening last – an evening of prayer and singing was in process, with prayers and praise being said aloud from all corners of the church. I think it lasted about two hours. The large church was full. The power or the prayers and of the singing, coming as it was from all all present was quite outstanding. I have also encountered also wonderful experiences on previous trips in churches in Bologna and in Sorrento. Never in Ireland. So while in Ireland people tie themselves in knots analysing what they should do, the Italians just get on with it.

  8. John Quinn


    Your referencing Benedict’s call to “swim against the tide” is I agree code talk. But I suspect I disagree with you about that code talk. In Caritas in Veritate Benedict reintroduces the notion of “God’s plan” or as it was called in religious education/catechesis “salvation history.” And for Benedict the Roman Catholic Church is the only way to fully access this plan of God, because it is only that Roman Catholic Church that offers full access to Jesus(Dominus Iesus).

    Benedict’s invitation to “swim against the tide” I believe is his invitation to become a member of “the church of the little flock”, a term that was constantly on his tongue from the time of his election. This is a return to the Tridentine Church where Catholics separated themselves from other religions – missionary orders major task prior to Vatican II was to baptize “pagans” so their souls could go to heaven – where Catholics did their Catholic thing – Mass on Sunday, fish on Friday, etc – and as a result when they died and left “this vale of tears” their souls went to heaven.

    I am not talking about any of this. This was the church I was born and baptized into at St. James in Bootle in 1942 and which Benedict constantly lusted after when he decried the loss of “Christian Europe.”

    In his 1972 book, The Shape Of The Church To Come, the late Karl Rahner SJ wrote:

    If we talk of the “little flock” to defend our cozy traditionalism and stale pseudo-orthodoxy, in fear of the mentality of modern man and modern society, if we tacitly consent to the departure of restless, questioning people from the Church, so that we can return to our repose and orderly life and everything in the Church becomes as it was before, we are propagating, not the attitude proper to Christ’s little flock, but a petty sectarian mentality. This is all the more dangerous because it shows up, not under its true name, but in an appeal to orthodoxy, church-loyalty and strict morality.

    My study of the new cosmologists reaffirms what I was taught in my catechism back in St. James that God is everywhere and has never not been everywhere, and has never not been present to me.It diverges from church teaching of that time that God separated himself from us because of Adam’s sin and it took a god-man Jesus to get us back in God’s good graces. This is what I meant when I said in my last post “the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy is still based on Fall/Redemption from the Scriptures and Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Redemption.’

    When I die I don’t need to “go to heaven” to see God. I die into God who is what holds everything in existence and communion in this world. That’s all I know and believe. So my openness to God’s presence in the world is about my relationship with everybody else in the world and has nothing to do with “getting to heaven” and so for me I relate more to Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins that he published in 1925 rather than the Vatican’s 2008 update. In 1925 Gandhi considered these traits to be the most spiritually perilous to humanity.

    Wealth without Work
    Pleasure without Conscience
    Science without Humanity
    Knowledge without Character
    Politics without Principle
    Commerce without Morality
    Worship without Sacrifice

    Hope this helps

  9. Philomena B

    I went to the Fist Holy Communion and it was a lovely day for the children. But seems too much, following Americans, as they influence everything 😉 – like a fashion pageant. And the priests had the children come for Communion with the adults which kinda seemed could have been done differently. The poor man, an older priest, has to deal with three churches in the area though. So demanding for him – very much so.

    I was wondering that the experience would not be made more meaningful for the children. Have table/altar the focal point where the family – newer family of believers, sit to share the Lord’s Supper. And that they all come in similar little tunics, outfits.

    My Body for you. My blood for you. Giving you the whole life of Christ that takes you into the world that you might also offer yourselves wholly in love to others – through service. Helping each other, friends, neighbours, parents and brothers and sisters etc.

    It is about offering our all to the loving service of others, just as Jesus did and asks we do the same.

  10. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    John @8 “Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.” This is the basis for “Caritas”.
    Yes, Benedict used “against the tide” quite often, as does Francis – when addressing the youth, especially. I’m sure the points you’ve mentioned might be a little out of scope for your average teenager but I agree, those who could swim against the tide would be a vast minority and certainly part of a “little flock”.
    I appreciate your helping me to understand where you are coming from but I’m not sure I follow your last paragraph. Can you imagine what the world would be like if the people living here didn’t think there was a spiritual repository where they were forced to watch how their decisions impacted life in the material world? Disaster comes to mind. On the off chance this didn’t exist, it’s one of those things you might just want to make up. Going to heaven isn’t an option. It’s about as important as having a King who is not of this earth, whose rules are not to be questioned. Do you see what happens when we put our hopes in “worldly kings?” How has that been for us? You have to instill a “future generation” ideal in today’s populace and this is the only way to do it. God is present in everything but obviously where there is no love, there is a God who is unhappy.

  11. Bernard Kennnedy

    John (3 above) writes accurately regarding our faith dilemma. Our difficulty seems to be a clash between ‘high descending Christology’ & ‘ low ascending Christology’. Architects speak of ‘ form follows function’, thus our faith expression (liturgy) must express: gather around the table of the Lord,(around), Incarnation (Christ with us), Resurrection(creation as divinised). Looking East, or west, cant replace looking here, where Christ is- Prodigal son, Cana etc. This clash of Christology, and its winner, will determine whether we grow or wither.Is our Liturgy a preservative or stimulant? Are we ‘getting Mass’, or in ‘communion with each other’?

  12. Darlene Starrs

    I’ve experienced liturgies that I would give various adjectives, but irreverent, never….What liturgies require is the full participation of the people, eg. singing, prayer responses, ministries, etc. and in the future, there will be a need for an injection of creative, profound, and inspirational preaching. Ah, that’s enough for now!

  13. LP

    Philomena B @ #9. Three cheers for what you say about the desirability of similar outfits for the first communicants. This is in fact common practice in France, where frequently all the boys and girls come in plain white albs (which can be supplied by the parish, with the parents returning them newly washed and starched.)
    The ‘little princess’, decked out in a style which many of her friends simply can’t afford, is a truly depressing sight.
    I recall that the late Cardinal Winning had strong words to say about the display aspect of first communions, but I expect that they fell on stony ground. Only an imposed solution will resolve the problem.

  14. Fergus P Egan

    is always great to hear from John Quinn.
    I was tempted to respond to this article with reference to the protocols used in our liturgies – with particular reference to the bowing and kneeling etc. that is required. This is all foreign to our current form of communicating within relationships. What father (or grandfather) today expects to be bowed to by his children (grandchildren)? A lot of our liturgical actions are in keeping with imperial Rome or a scene from a Star Wars movie. When we approach God “do not do as the heathens do.” (paraphrased)
    Having read John Quinn’s letters, I am convinced that a major overhaul is required, not a few little tweaks.

    Perhaps we are ready for an article entitled Catholic liturgies should be relevant — and better understood

  15. Paddy Ferry

    I have saved John Quinn’s post @8 above for future reference; really excellent, thank you John. And not just the analysis of Ratzinger’s thinking but also the reference to Karl Rahner and Gandhi. I had never come across Gandhi’s 7 Deadly Sins before.
    I expect Ratzinger’s idea of “the Church of the little flock” is much the same as his idea of ” a creative minority” a slimmed down, but completely committed — and completely orthodox too, I presume — model of church.

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